Improving lives through invention

Making Engineering Elementary

How a model for equity-oriented engineering curriculum is engaging students from all backgrounds and in the earliest grades

Engineers are crucial to building our future. And to harness the best solutions for tomorrow’s social and environmental challenges, we need a pipeline of engineers from diverse perspectives and backgrounds.

But most engineering education doesn’t start until high school or college, which is often too late to engage students who don’t initially see themselves in STEM careers. So how early should we start teaching it?

Education specialist Dr. Christine Cunningham says we need to start at the very beginning — focusing on elementary school and even Pre-K.

Dr. Cunningham is the Senior Vice President for STEM Learning at the Museum of Science in Boston, Massachusetts, where she leads the creation of engineering curricula to engage students in the earliest grades. Her Youth Engineering Solutions (YES) team has a particular focus on equity to reach populations that are typically underserved and underrepresented in STEM.

They’ve developed a model for equity-oriented engineering that includes these essential ingredients:

  • Draws upon social and environmental issues that students care about for lesson plans
  • Uses authentic engineering practices in the classroom
  • Employs asset-based pedagogies to draw from youths’ backgrounds and provides accessible materials
  • Develops inventive mindsets and identities so that students can see that they are capable of being problem solvers

This approach is backed up by impact studies conducted with Penn State and Towson University, as well as a growing body of scholarly research. And to make their work as accessible as possible, all of their curricula is available online for free, and they lead professional learning workshops for teachers on how to use it.

We recently sat down with Dr. Cunningham to discuss her ideas on how to increase access to STEM and adapt engineering education for all levels to create the next generation of engineers and problem solvers we need.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How did you first get involved in STEM and engineering education in the K-12 space?

From my earliest memory, I wanted to be a teacher. I think education has the power to change lives, that’s just as simple as it gets. You have this enormous ability to help kids understand their world in a different way.

In graduate school, I started to explore the intersection of K-12 and engineering education. When we created a design challenge to go with some of our environmental science work, I noticed that the students who were doing really well were kids who didn’t do traditionally well in science and engineering. And I became interested in how to create educational environments that really invite participation by all different kinds of students.

I’m interested in doing things at scale and changing things in a bigger way, so I decided to focus on educational materials because those have the opportunity to end up in classrooms across the country and around the world.

Can you describe your work creating equity-oriented engineering curriculum for early learners?

A student testing whether the tower she engineered will support weight. (Credit: YES, Museum of Science, Boston)

At the Museum of Science in Boston, I lead a group called Youth Engineering Solutions focused primarily on Pre-K through grade 8 engineering science and computer science. We are developing a national network of collaborators who are advocating for engineering, science, and computer science in their local or regional space. Our goal is to create high-quality instructional materials and professional learning supports, then we partner with the groups to help us disseminate it through their networks because they know the local context, they know the local teachers.

We’re the development factory, but there’s a two-way conversation — they tell us what teachers are really seeing. That constant dialogue helps us make sure that what we create is not only reflective of an equity-oriented approach and materials that drive learning, but also can work in schools. There’s that balance between driving what we know is best practice, but also weighing it against the realities that teachers are facing.

Data suggests that early exposure to STEM concepts is crucial to engage students. Why is it so important to start teaching engineering and STEM as early as elementary school?

When I started this two decades ago, engineering didn’t show up at all before middle school. I realized that by then, it was too late. I wanted to begin before the stereotypes about who can be an engineer start to kick in.

Children are born natural scientists and engineers. They have an innate curiosity, they design and build things. And then they hit school, and that’s the end of that. We don’t foster that kind of creative problem-solving. What we want to do is support this natural curiosity — not kill it through standardized worksheets with right answers, but instead foster the skills and habits of mind for solving problems and thinking scientifically.

The data now shows us that students are thinking about different careers in elementary school, but that starts to narrow by upper elementary and middle school. If we can start far younger than that, they begin to think about themselves as capable in these topics.

What challenges or advantages did you have trying to implement engineering education in these early grades?

I realized that we had a huge opportunity. Nobody had done engineering before at those grade levels. One of the challenges you run up against is that people teach the way they were taught. We didn’t have that problem at the time with engineering because nobody taught it. We didn’t have to try to think about undoing bad habits or things that might exclude certain populations. So it was a unique moment because it was a brand new discipline at this grade level.

Engineering has a history of lacking diversity. How can engineering curricula be designed to foster student engineering identity in a way that is inclusive and celebrates the diverse perspectives students bring to the table?

I want every person to see that they have the ability to shape the world they live in. It’s critically important to have kids understand engineering as a force for good, and also understand that engineering has not always served every person equally. We want them to think about challenges and make connections to their own lives and their own communities so they can see some relevance to their world.

But we also want to make sure that we’re expanding their horizons, so it’s important that not everything is 100% anchored in the kids’ experiences. Otherwise, you’re going to end up with big disparities between students. What I like about engineering is that it’s so easily differentiated across a wide variety of types of learners.

Your model emphasizes “socially engaged engineering” as a key dimension. Can you elaborate on how engineering curricula can be designed to encourage students to consider the social, environmental, and ethical implications of their designs, particularly around issues of equity and social justice?

We ask kids in age-appropriate ways to think about what is being affected by some sort of problem — it could be people, animals, or the environment — and as they’re designing solutions, to try to prioritize a range of different kinds of users or people who are being affected. Then we have them think about engineered solutions and the potential consequences. For example, plastics are a fabulous invention, but they’ve also caused a ton of challenges. We’re trying to get kids to wrestle with those kinds of issues. Engineering is embedded in society with these environmental, political, economic, and cultural effects that we need to think about while we also think about solutions.

Students testing the “trash collectors” they engineered to attempt to remove trash from water. (Credit: YES, Museum of Science, Boston)

We try to have kids think empathetically. In our unit for fifth graders about the problem of plastic pollution in the ocean, they’ll start by thinking about who’s most affected. We give them some stakeholders, everything from the fish that are living in water with the plastic pollution to the people who make a livelihood from fishing. We have them think about the environment itself, about people who might be buying fish at the grocery store. Not all of these stakeholders are impacted equally by the problem of plastic, and so you’re trying to have them recognize different perspectives than themselves.

How do you make the case to teachers who may be interested in incorporating engineering into their classrooms but might feel unsure where to begin?

It’s a very different approach to instruction, and something that teachers are still adjusting to.

Students using recycled materials to create a vehicle. (Credit: YES, Museum of Science, Boston)

It requires a different kind of classroom control and a different role for the teacher. You don’t just say, “Okay everybody, go and make stuff and we’ll see you in 45 minutes.” You need to structure those spaces so there is actual learning that’s happening. It can look like chaos, but at the end of the activity, students should be able to say here’s what we did and here’s what we learned. Ultimately, we want kids to walk away with some new understanding of the world around them and how they might be able to apply that learning to something else.

What we hear from teachers who are willing to take a first step toward that, they come back and tell us it has helped transform the way they teach. They can engage more kids because their students are allowed to have original ideas and they’re allowed to innovate.

Measuring the success of equity-oriented engineering education can be challenging. How can we assess student learning and engagement in a way that goes beyond standardized tests and captures the nuances of this approach?

When I first started, there wasn’t any research in elementary-aged engineering, but the field’s come a long way. There’s the qualitative data about how things are working — observing classrooms, kids at work and how they make sense of it, and trying to figure out what the teacher does that causes successful spaces. We collect student journals to see what they’re reflecting, we talk to teachers themselves about what’s working and what’s not, and we ask about things like participation or engagement.

On the quantitative side, the research is still underway. But we did the first random control trial research and efficacy study of our materials with about 14,000 students in 660 classrooms in three states across the country. We were comparing our materials that have an equity-oriented approach with another set of engineering curriculum that had exactly the same content, but did not have the equity principles. And we found that kids from every demographic group did better in engineering with this equity-oriented approach, and they also did better on science. I think the more data we can get that shows that kids from every demographic group are doing better when you have this kind of learning, the more we will start to drive more school decisions.

How do these trends compare to how engineering is taught in other countries in K-12?

I think at the K-12 level, the United States has the most focus on engineering. England has a long history of teaching engineering, but they call it design. Australia has adopted engineering as something that they are trying to push out into schools. A lot of the places that we think about as a powerhouse of science learning, like East Asian countries, don’t do any engineering in schools. It’s based on, “You’re going learn these facts really well and then we’re going to test you on those facts.” And so they’re looking to the efforts in the United States and other countries about how we make this innovation flourish.

Looking to the future, what are some of the emerging trends or challenges you see in K-12 engineering education?

I’ve definitely seen a huge amount of change since we started 20 years ago. I think having engineering in the Next Generation Science Standards really helped with that. I think the work we did to show what it looked like and show that it can be done with young kids fueled that as well.

I do worry a little bit now post-pandemic, because we are hearing some pullback when funds get tight or everyone’s just focusing on those math and reading scores. We have had some districts that have been using our materials for many years say they just can’t do it this year.

But now not only schools have engineering curriculum — there are a lot of after-school programs, summer programs, museums, and public television programs that do it. There’s a much bigger focus on developing meaningful engineering activities for kids, so that’s really exciting.

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